McDonalds vs Unite: Queer power, workers’ power

Sean Bailey, who faced homophobia at Quay St McDonalds, Auckland

Sean Bailey, who faced homophobia at Quay St McDonalds, Auckland

Ian Anderson

While negotiations between McDonalds and Unite Union have broken down, a recent case of homophobia has also inflamed solidarity actions across Aotearoa/NZ.

Sean Bailey, a worker at the Quay Street McDonalds in Auckland, reported to the Herald:

“One of my managers said, ‘if you act gay on my shift, I will discipline you’.

“He also said, ‘if you turn anyone else in the store gay, I will punish you and make you lose your job’.”

Bailey said the comments made him embarrassed to return to work.

“I had to call in sick just because I couldn’t work with him, which meant I lost work hours and money.”

Once the managers’ behavior was exposed, McDonalds moved him to another store, in a move described as the “Catholic church solution” to homophobia.

Demonstrations against homophobia in Auckland and Wellington

In Auckland, Unite called a “Turn McDonalds Gay” action outside Britomart McDonalds. Dozens of supporters chanted and danced to pop songs including YMCA. According to GayNZ, Sean Bailey thanked the group and commented, “McDonald’s need to sort out the discrimination in the workforce. It needs to make sure it’s not allowed in our restaurants.”

In Wellington, the Queer Avengers held a small but solid action outside Manners Mall McDonalds. Demonstrators chanted, “Queer power! Union power!” and “When queer workers are under attack, stand up fight back.” Liaising with Unite delegates, Fightback played an active role in organizing and supporting this action.

The coming weeks will see more demonstrations and industrial action across the country.

Gay-friendly McDonalds ad

Gay-friendly McDonalds ad

McDonalds: Corporate “gay rights” stance

At a corporate level, McDonalds appear to support lesbian & gay rights. The company has run gay-friendly ads in France, has a relationship with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in the USA, and corporate heads such as former CEO Jim Skinner have spoken out in support of gay rights.

However, queer workers still face multiple-oppression. Since queer workers do not control the means of production, they are forced to rely on bosses who will use whatever tools are available to crush fightback.

Homophobia is part of the arsenal of bullying tactics used by managers to control workers. Especially at franchisee-owned McDonalds stores, reports of bullying behaviour from managers are routine.


Aotearoa/NZ: Legal equality, social oppression
Recently in Aotearoa/NZ, the basic democratic demand of same-sex marriage rights passed through parliament. Adult, monogamous same-sex couples now have the same legal rights as their heterosexual counterparts.

However, gender and sexual oppression remains embedded in social relations. It reveals itself when a manager tells a worker not to “act gay,” when parents kick their children out for their gender identity, when schools tolerate bullying of queer/trans youth.

Capitalism demands certain performances, certain embodiments of gender. It demands that we perform certain kinds of work; that women perform the bulk of unpaid work, with little assistance from the state, while men perform the bulk of paid work; and it tries to fit a wide spectrum of gender and sexuality into these boxes.

mcdonalds queer power
Queer power, workers’ power
McDonalds’ workers struggle is connected to the struggle against homophobia. Workers’ rights must mean the right to be open about our sexual orientation, our political associations, and other parts of our life that managers don’t happen to like. Technically discrimination against gay employees is illegal, but just like neglect of wage rights, it is also normal in hospitality and retail.

Unite is currently struggling for parity between McDonalds and KFC, while McDonalds has offered a miniscule 25 cents over the next two years. Winning this dispute will not end oppression. However, with each victory and each defeat, we must aim to build a socialist movement that actively challenges all forms of oppression.

Currently McDonalds makes millions from exploiting and oppressing workers. If this wealth were socialised, it could be directed towards support for queer youth among other social purposes.

This is a struggle for self-determination, for a world in which our work and our gender presentation is not micro-managed for profit. To borrow a phrase from Marx, we fight for a world where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”


  1. Kawaii Gardiner says:

    I work for a McDonalds competitor, I’m gay and I’m a manager – it really makes me cringe when I see this sort of bullying within New Zealand. As a manager the focus should be ensuring that the person delivers great product and great service to the customer as well as pulling their weight as a crew member – the sexual orientation, race, colour or creed shouldn’t even matter in the grand scheme of things. The fact that these managers focused on the individuals sexual orientation tells me that those managers lack the maturity required to be a manager in the first place.

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